The Horrors of the Slave Trade told from a Survivor

Often individuals think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. It is often thought that the lives of the Europeans in the 18th century were much easier than those of the blacks and they would easily trade places with them. However, The Interesting Narrative by Olaudah Equiano and the Digital Archives of the Slave Migrations demonstrates the opposite. With a personal anecdote and a thought provoking image Equiano can describe the true events of what happened on the ships. Moreover, how the lives of the masters were more corrupt than those of the slaves as their morals and relationship with God contradict their beliefs.

The archival picture shows the pain and suffering of the African Americans during the transatlantic slave trade. In the picture there’s thirty or more slaves on a ship. There are some on sitting in things that look like shelves and are crammed. The other slaves are barely dressed, only having a rag as clothing or naked. In the center of the picture there is a male slave trying to get up through the opening of the ship, holding his two arms up attempting to grab the edge of the opening but he cannot reach. The rest of his shipmates are also lying on the floor in despair, exhaustion and probably from starvation as well, as their bones are visible through their skin.  There is also a white male with a whip, demonstrating he’s trying to control but also instill fear in them. The caption of the pictures says, “Ah its horrors who can describe?… Oh! friends of humanity pity the African who has been trepanned and sold away from friends and home…to await more horrors and miseries in a distant land, amongst the religious and benevolent.” The caption informs the reader how to interpret this image. The events that occurred on the ship were so terrifying that no one can describe what happened because it’s too traumatic. This is said by a slave ship survivor. However, the caption it demonstrates dehumanization and sarcasm.

While the image demonstrates what it felt like to be and occurred on the ships. In Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative, he is able to put the picture into words when he speaks about his personal experience being on a slave ship. He says,

This produced copious perspirations, so that the air so became unfit for respiration, for a variety of loathsome smells and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now became insupportable and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable. (58)

In this small passage of his work, he speaks about the Middle Passage, the voyage from Africa to the West Indies. Through his experience the readers get vivid imagery of what it was like to be forcibly taken from a place one knows well to live in harsh conditions. The slaves were all crammed and chained to the ships and had to perform everything with the chains on as well, providing no space for them to move around. As a result, the air on the ships wasn’t safe to inhale making them sick as the ships were filled with excrements. The ones to take fault in the deaths of many slaves, he says, are the Europeans. Equiano says, ‘improvident avarice’, meaning thoughtless and extremely greedy, showing they lack empathy. The women didn’t have privacy and many rather die than go through such horrors but that too was impossible as they feared the whites. Many have taken to Equiano’s narrative because he is able to explain and illustrate the realities of the slaves while being evocative. His narrative is different in the way that he is telling it through a slave’s perspective rather than the white man. Unlike the image where the caption informs the reader how to interpret the event, Equiano claims authority over his experiences.

Equiano is a survivor of the slave trade and it is evident through his work that the reason he is able to overcome such atrocities was through faith in God.

I was sensible in the invisible hand of God, which guided and protected me when in truth I knew it not: still the lord perused me although I slighted and disregarded it; this mercy melted me down. When I considered my poor wretched state I wept, seeing what a great debtor I was to sovereign free grace. Now the Ethiopian was willing to be saved by Jesus Christ, the sinner’s only surety, and also to rely on none other person or thing for salvation. (191)

Here he explains that he did not have a relationship with God, he was hesitant. Without knowing God kept him safe throughout his time on the slave ships. After being on the ships he wants to explore Christianity in a more deep and meaningful way that will benefit his life. In following faith and reading the bible he finds it as a source of strength. When he takes time to reflect on himself and how he’s been feeling, he feels that he owes a debt to God through faith. Once he comes to this realization is when he decides to begin his conversion. It is also the only way he can be guaranteed salvation. He tells readers to depend on the bible for teaching faith and no other person. He tries to get other African Americans to follow faith and tries to show them the good it does for them. Equiano worries for his mother who doesn’t follow faith, he says those who don’t they’re in an awful state. He is dedicated to Christianity, he says, “he can read it for himself”, have his own interpretation rather than the masters telling them what to believe.

The Narrative and Equiano finding with faith and the harshness of the whites exposes their hypocrisy with their faith. A poem that relates to his experience is “The Negros Complaint” by William Cowper, where the speaker raises questions to get whites to think of their actions against the blacks and if God would agree with their actions.  In the archival picture, there’s a white man holding an item that appears to be a whip and the slaves are terrified. The poem states,

Slaves of Gold! Whose sordid dealings,

Tarnish all your boasted pow’rs

Prove that you have human feelings

‘Ere ye proudly questions Ours. (L 53-56. 98)

The fifth line of the last stanza, Cowper says the Europeans are slaves themselves, to gold and the system of slavery. The value of Gold can make them dehumanize the slaves. It also shows the greed of the whites. Cowper says, “Is there, as ye sometimes tell us/ is there One who reigns on high?” They believe in God but used the bible to justify their actions toward the slaves. Actions that characterize the slaves as animals. They were told if they didn’t follow they would be punished. However, the lines also tell us that it was the white man that taught them about God. The slaves never had their own interpretation of the bible, giving the slaveowners the opportunity to make the slaves believe what was their interpretation of faith. God is a being that gives equal treatment to all. The slaveowners are being contradictory because if they had faith, they would not have treated or enslaved the African Americans the way they did. Cowper tells slave owners to prove they have empathy and emotion towards the slaves. The actions they have taken against the blacks shows who they really are as individuals. Cowper concludes the poem by challenging the masters to show if they have any human emotion before they underestimate the abilities of the African Americans. This yet another way to get the owners to think of their faith, they believe in God, yet they refuse to show empathy and treat them like animals. Equiano is able to save himself because he converts to Christianity and he sees that there’s part of the texts he can relate to.

The events that happen in our lives we don’t have control over them, but we do have control over how we react to them. In both the text, both show how they utilized literacy to get them through their ordeals. The slave in this sense is brave because during this time is wasn’t agreed upon for a person of slavery to speak against the injustices of the system It also shows the weakness of a white man only attaining power by taking it away from others. Both texts, remind me of the poem, Invictus, by Ernest Hanley, where the individual goes through continuous struggles but despite of all the despair he is still able to persevere. The slave and Equiano could have given up, but they chose to write of their experiences which is a way to grieve but also to educate the whites on their wrongs.



Works Cited

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative and Other Works. Edited by Vincent Carretta, Penguin, 2003.

Gardo Barquaqua, Mahommah. “Negras a Fonde De Cale.” AAME : www.inmotionaame.org/gallery/detail.cfm?migration=1&topic=99&id=299670&page=6&type=image.

Greenblatt, Stephen, editor. The Norton Anthology of English Literature Package 2. 9th ed., D, W.W. Norton, 2012. The Negros Complaint



One thought on “The Horrors of the Slave Trade told from a Survivor

  1. Hey Sandra!
    This is a powerful analysis of the conditions slaves were met with aboard the ships along the Middle Passage and the horrors they faced. I want to commend you on your opening line specifically, because the first sentence of your paper immediately had me hooked and made me want to keep reading. I liked that you chose to incorporate a third source into your paper, rather than relying solely on Equiano’s Interesting Narrative and your chosen archive image. Citing the poem “A Negroes Complaint” reinforces your analysis of the text and image and makes the paper even stronger. Thank you for a great read!

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